Prague, 23 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Before joining the European Union, accession countries have had to bring their domestic human rights policies in line with standards set by the Council of Europe.
The council has played a leading role in coordinating initiatives to improve the plight of Europe's Roma communities. Dimitrina Petrovna, the head of the Budapest-based European Center for Roma Rights, says EU enlargement may mean significant change in the lives of many Roma.
"In my view, the accession of East European countries is going to bring about positive change in the lives of Roma and in their status and in their human rights situation," Petrovna said.
"There have been well-known and broadly discussed problems with the Roma leadership in terms of fragmentation, generational differences, tradition."
However, despite an apparent willingness among national governments to change their attitude toward Roma, local bias is sometimes hard to shed. Petrovna says local authorities must work hard to transform high-minded plans into reality.
"Nothing will change if the local level doesn't change. The sea change that needs to take place if we are going to live in a peaceful non-racist society with Roma on their way to integration -- the sea change needs to happen at the local level, because this is where everything is taking place," Petrovna said.
The Council of Europe and the EU are spearheading efforts to work with local authorities.
Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, the Council of Europe's deputy secretary-general, says the most pressing priority is for policies to be implemented at both local and regional levels.
But many of the organizations involved in the Roma issue agree a breakthrough will only occur when the Roma community itself becomes an organized body with leaders who can represent them at all levels of officialdom.
De Boer-Buquicchio says international bodies and governments want Roma representatives involved in solving Roma issues but have been frustrated by the inability of internally fractured Roma communities to produce broadly accepted leaders.
The Roma have strong leadership at family and clan levels, but inter-group rivalries mean there are no "national" leaders. Governments are often reluctant to disburse funds to self-managed Roma structures.
The past decade has seen only a handful of Roma elected as mayors and members of national parliaments. A few hundred have risen to the level of local authority councilors. But these remain exceptions.
The Council of Europe wants to set up a consultative forum consisting of Roma representatives. This, says de Boer-Buquicchio, will help the Roma achieve a level of cohesiveness and enable them to have more influence in shaping policies affecting their communities.
"The hope still is that the first meeting of this forum can take place in 2004, in autumn 2004. But again that very much depends on the capacity of the Roma population to come to an internal agreement on how they can be best represented," de Boer-Buquicchio said.
Petrovna says because the Roma population is composed of different groups and tribes, it is difficult to organize at national and international levels.
"There have been well-known and broadly discussed problems with the Roma leadership in terms of fragmentation, generational differences, tradition, etc. The Romany community throughout Europe is divided by borders, by language and so on. But one thing which I hope, together with all Roma, that will happen over the next years is the formation of a mature leadership that expresses the interests of Roma at both the local and national and even international level," Petrovna said.
De Boer-Buquicchio says Roma leaders are needed who can negotiate confidently with local government authorities in order to obtain what their communities need.
"In order to achieve something, it is essential that the authorities have a valid interlocutor of the Roma population to identify priorities. And that is still something where we need a better situation -- we need improvement from that point of view. The Roma population must be able [to] find its proper representative to act as an interlocutor with the authorities," de Boer-Buquicchio said.
She says the rate of development progress for the Roma depends on producing enough such able interlocutors.